The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Beyond categories of growth and decline
Intrusion or facility


The 18th century has long been a happy hunting ground for historians who, for more than two centuries, have continued to quibble over its characterization. In many ways, the so-called debate over “evolution or revolution” that caught the fancy of Anglo-American scholars since the late Seventies, notwithstanding the carefully garnered evidence drawn from regional studies, has remained trapped within the older anxieties of imperialist apologetics and nationalist critics. At critical intersections, a strange conjunction emerged between the followers of Mill and Marx — for both, the 18th century was a period of chaos and turbulence — as the empire of the Mughals slipped into a vortex of decline, leaving a trail of decay and destruction, the British stepped in to fulfill its historical destiny of taking over the mantle of power. The assertion of power was fraught with all sorts of consequences; for Marxist nationalist historians, it initiated an irreversible break with pre-existing traditions and tied the subcontinent to a larger global order. The tie-up backed by force and coercion reduced the subcontinent to the status of a periphery in the larger world system and rolled back the forces of change and development. Thus both protagonists of British rule as well its critics saw the 18th century as a period of decline and unmitigated decay resulting in a profound transformation that contemporary chroniclers likened to an inqilab — the world turned upside down.

With the focus shifting to the regions of late Mughal India sometime in the late Seventies, there was an attempt to move away from Mughal-centric assumptions and focus on the vitality of provincial regimes in the 18th century and their attempts to build alternative centres of power and confront the immediate realities of the day, these including in a big way the steady incursion of the English East India Company. The drive for greater resource control and expansion, with its attendant implications of negotiating more closely with local society and experimenting with new forms of warfare and state financing on the part of the regional states, provided the empirical foundations not just for a reassessment of the 18th century in terms of growth/decline indicators but a range of theoretical models for understanding the structure of early modern society and polity in south Asia. This in turn became the basis for a new orthodoxy that sought to reposition the incursion of the English East India Company and see its emergence as naturally consistent with the dynamics of 18th-century politics. What this meant was a not-so-subtle questioning of the unsettling nature of early colonial impact on the subcontinent. All this is now more than familiar if not altogether tedious thanks to two decades of research and publication.

Where then does Peter Marshall’s edited readings stand in the well-trodden domain of debate on the 18th century' For me its importance lies in the fact that the editor, both in his selection as well as in his introduction, rests his case with the revisionists or those who argue that the 18th century was not simply a century of decline, that its politics cannot be understood in the older paradigm of empire and imperial decline and that the early colonial represented a kind of historical continuum with older tendencies in south Asia that were maturing into fruition. Marshall divides the book into four sections, each detailing a theme that is seen to make up the principal contours of historical experience in the 18th century. The first section deals with the general assessments of the 18th century, the second with the post-Mughal order, the third with the European intrusion and the fourth with the new British order. It is not entirely fortuitous that the second section is best represented for it is in this area that some of the more interesting research in recent years has been carried out. Two essays by Frank Perlin and Burton Stein elaborate some of the more complex attributes of 18th century regimes and their monetary practices. Thus for Perlin, the widespread use of revenue farming, the circulation of larger even if debased coinage was part of a more complex process of commercialization and monetization that brought rural areas into closer relations with urban and manufacturing centres. The participation of the European trading companies integrated India into a larger global order, so much so that Perlin argues that it is no longer possible to understand the 18th century independent of the history of a growing international economy. For Stein, the European impact was even more germane to the maturing of pre-existing tendencies in 18th-century south Asian society and polity.

The volume focusses largely on researches which have contributed to a deeper understanding of regions in 18th-century India. These fit into the now familiar exegesis on the dynamism of 18th-century regional states, the accommodative nature of their politics, the impact of their revenue drives on regional agrarian society and their interface with British expansion. It is surprisingly silent on the commercial structure of late Mughal India or indeed of the crisis that it underwent in the 18th century. What relieves the monotony of the volume is the essay by Ajay Skaria on the politics of wildness in central India in the 18th century. Skaria moves beyond categories of decline and growth to capture the nature of political negotiation in 18th century India by focusing on the Bhils and Dangs. He questions conventional narratives of wildness and civilization to make the point that 18th-century efforts to control wildness were linked with the practices of wildness itself, and that tribal raids were more than mere expressions of deviant conduct. They were claims to power and rational means of maintaining power. This essay is important for it provides a key to rethinking some of the questions related to the 18th century.

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